The first-ever statewide study of farmer’s markets in Montana has been conducted and released by the Alternative Energy Resources Organization (AERO) in conjunction with the UM Environmental Studies program, thanks to a grant from the Montana Department of Agriculture. The study found that there are 26 farmer’s markets in Montana, which came as a surprise to many, who had known of only 19 beforehand. The community of Glendive, for instance, has two farmer’s markets that were basically off of the statewide radar screen until the study was compiled.
“The markets weren’t connected to one another,” says AERO’s Jonda Crosby. “There wasn’t any networking amongst them so that they could learn from one another.”
Crosby believes that newer markets such as Townsend’s could do well to learn from the experiences of longer-standing markets, such as Missoula’s.
The study is just a first step, however, towards AERO’s and many farmers’ goal of empirically demonstrating the value of the markets to Montana’s economy. In the last session, the Legislature cut funding for the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) farmer’s market coupon program. Without the state money, Montana farmers may lose out on $35,000 in available matching funds from the federal government, unless the funds can be recouped through private donations.
“We want to substantiate the importance of farmer’s markets in Montana through economic data,” says Crosby. “We’ve got a good start…but we don’t have the numbers.”
Mel Parker, the organizer of Missoula’s farmer’s market, doesn’t know how much money circulates within the community due to the market, though he imagines it’s “a good deal.”
This lack of specifics is what AERO and EVST hope to work on in the future.
“When the WIC program got cut, farmers could call and say, ‘This is important to me,’ but we didn’t have the statistical information to say, ‘This is critical to our state,’” says Crosby.
Due to the informal nature of most market exchanges, tracking money at farmer’s markets is no small task, but if AERO and EVST follow up on their study as planned, farmers may soon have ammo to appeal not only to legislators’ heartstrings, but to their purse strings.